Adventures in Solitude

Jennifer lookThere was a weird period of time in college where I decided self-disclosure was the way to go.  I was heavily into angst at the time, mainlining The Smiths and Oscar Wilde and caught up in the notion that because I saw myself as different from my peers this was somehow worth advertising.  Talking loudly and at length about feeling melancholy and unloved was a way for me to wreathe myself in superiority, to assert that even though I was a student at a largely white, fairly affluent Midwestern college, I was different from my peers.  Better.

What a self-involved little twerp I was.

My thinking – or whatever passed for it as a 20-year-old dude – was that by revealing anything that I thought was worth knowing about myself (a fairly specious line of reasoning all by itself) I’d be projecting my true self, which would be irresistible to all the 20-year-old ladies who adored Michael Stipe and really appreciated honesty.  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but it was probably my version of Campbell Scott’s character in Singles, who hits on Kyra Sedgwick’s character by claiming he doesn’t have an act, and what she sees is what she gets.  Her response, though, is the only truthful line in the scene: “I think that a) you have an act, and b) not having an act is your act.”

“Honesty” was my act, and I put it in quotes here purposefully.  My honesty wasn’t any more honest than anyone else’s.  I was supposed to be soulful because I could recite Morrissey lyrics and deep because I openly admitted to reservoirs of self-loathing, as though that made me dashing instead of pathetic.  But it was an affectation, a way of drawing attention to myself.  I mean, not totally.  I’ve wrestled with issues of anxiety and depression since at least junior high, but adopting “woe is me” as a lifestyle choice was just another way of wearing a Joy Division t-shirt without having to do the laundry.

I couldn’t help but think of all this as I read Look at Me, Jennifer Egan’s powerhouse of a novel about several characters all wrestling with conceptions of identity, how much to reveal, and how to be appreciated for who they (think they) really are.  It’s a dense, multi-layered text that reads as breezily as a beach mystery and a book that manages to say Real Things about 21st Century life without preaching.  It initially seems to be centered on one character, Charlotte, a past-her-prime fashion model who suffers through a horrific car accident that destroys her face and then multiple reconstructive surgeries to rebuild it.  She comes out the other side not looking like her old self – people she knows look right past her in restaurants and need to be re-introduced to her at parties – and while the book started promisingly, I wasn’t sure Egan could sustain my interest in Charlotte for 500+ pages.

But then Egan begins to weave in threads from other characters, deftly connecting them in ways that were both unexpected and inevitable (but no less satisfying for it).  In addition to Charlotte the Model (CTM), Egan takes up the question of personal identity in a variety of ways and with a range of characters (in both New York City, where CTM currently lives, and Rockford, IL, where she was born and raised) that never seems forced:

  • Charlotte – This second Charlotte is the 16-year-old daughter of CTM’s childhood best friend.  Bookish and shy, she falls in love with a much older man as a reaction to her superficial friends and as a way of feeling important to someone worldly.
  • Moose – The uncle of Charlotte II, Moose is a disgraced Yale professor now teaching (and seeking redemption) at a college in Rockford.  He begins holding private lessons with Charlotte II to help her see the world the way he sees it.
  • Michael West – A high school math teacher with a secret.  To say more – other than the fact that it deals with the core of what it means to be American – would be to spoil one of the book’s great pleasures.
  • Anthony Halliday – An alcoholic private detective who begins a dalliance with CTM in the course of investigating the disappearance of Z., one of CTM’s New York friends.

All five of these characters present a different way of unpacking the book’s title, and Egan probably could have given us a satisfying book just based on their lives.  But she introduces more characters halfway through the novel and very nearly flirts with obsolescence in the process when she brings Thomas and his plan for a website that documents the lives of Real People™ into the mix.

(Details of the site, for those who are interested: As Thomas describes it, it’ll launch with a handful of Ordinary People – the normal folks, like us – and a handful of Extraordinary People –models, actors, captains of industry – at its core.  They’ll provide text-based journal entries where they relate the details of their day, but then eventually photos, music, streaming video, and filmed reenactments of key events from the person’s life will be incorporated into each individual page.  The idea is to gradually expand the database and in the process bring the world closer together.  From the site we learn about and develop empathy for the people whose lives we can now access 24 hours a day, and by extension we develop the same empathy for people like them we meet on a daily basis.  It’s social media as altruism, before social media as we know it existed.)

Keep in mind that Look at Me was written in 1999 (and published in 2001), pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook, pre-everything else we now know about the pervasiveness of social media.  There’s the risk that Thomas’ site and his proposal to make CTM a cornerstone of this new venture will look quaint and archaic in our current culture.  But somehow it doesn’t, which speaks to just how prescient Egan was, both in devising the concept for the site and for anticipating the still-thorny question of just how much we present of ourselves online is authentic and how much is fabricated for effect.  Much of the second half of the book is focused on that question as Egan peels back the layers of each of the main characters, gradually revealing whatever lies at the core.

As always, when I dwell too much on the details of plot I feel like I fail to sell the book’s quality.  Put simply, Look at Me is a rich, resonant book, especially for anyone who’s wrestled with the question of who they really are and how they reconcile present with past – which, I imagine, is most of us.  In the context of how I began this review – considering identity and how we choose to present it to the world – it perhaps makes the most sense to close with the passage that hit closest to home and which speaks most profoundly to how I think of myself now in relation to the person I was.  I might not be the 20-year-old drip I used to be, but when I think in terms of what people expected of me when I was younger, I feel like I’ve got a long way to go.  And the clock is ticking.

When Moose imagined himself as a child, he pictured a boy watching him across a doorway, through a screen, and a bubble of sorrow would break in his chest, as if he were seeing someone who had died or vanished inexplicably, a milk carton child, as if some vital connection between himself and that boy had been lost.  And despite all that Moose knew he was achieving now or trying to achieve, still he felt – inexplicably – that he had failed to fulfill the promise of that little boy, and was being visited by his unhappy ghost.

*****

Current listening:

Ryan gold

Ryan Adams – Gold (2001)

Through the Knowledge of Those Who Observe Us

don pointFull disclosure: I often start writing these reviews while I’m still reading the book.  I am, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, unforgivably lazy about writing.  I enjoy the process on some level, and it’s kinda fun when I experience one of those rare moments where I return to something I’ve written and think, “Hey, that’s not entirely horrible.” But the truth of it is that there are always other things I’d rather be doing, and none of them require as much effort as sitting down to crank out (optimistically, when it comes to these reviews) 1,000 words or so.  I’ve found the only significant way I can generate some momentum and enthusiasm for the act of writing these recent posts is to begin composing them before I sit down to type.  This gives me direction and purpose, and it prevents the paralysis I occasionally feel when faced with blank screen and blinking cursor.  So there are times when I know by the midpoint of a book what angle I’m going to take, or, in the case of something like Andy Weir’s The Martian, I can tell the book is irredeemably stupid and I’m not at risk of having my negative review ruined by an abnormally high-quality closing chapter.  In those cases I might have already written the opening paragraph or two before I actually finish the last page of the book.

But there are also, I have to admit, times when I begin mentally composing the review before I’ve even started reading the book.  Such was the case with Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which I knew was next in line following Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast.  These things I also knew:

  • I’m a huge fan of Leonard, and it seemed unlikely I’d be writing him a negative review.
  • I used to love DeLillo, but his recent works have left me cold, especially The Body Artist, which I read a mere three months ago but about whose plot I remember absolutely nothing.
  • I’ve never written a combo review before.  Wouldn’t it be swell if I wrote a single review linking these two books, specifically focusing on the degree to which Leonard’s early genre fiction was superior to DeLillo’s recent highbrow fiction?

I worked my way through Gold Coast with this framework in mind, already picturing the way I was going to assert my populist preference.  And then the following two things happened:

1) Gold Coast wasn’t very good.

2) Point Omega was fantastic.

So back to the drawing board and a single review of Point Omega, a short book of palpable melancholy that somehow manages to simultaneously be about three specific people and everyone in the world.

It’s a book where summary is almost beside the point.  I’ll try anyway.  Elster, one of the architects of the second Iraq War, is in a cabin in the middle of the Arizona desert with Finley, a documentarian who’s trying to convince Elster to allow him to make a Fog of War-style movie with Elster as the focal point, telling his story against a blank wall, no questions, no stock footage, just one man talking and telling his side of the run-up to the war.  Elster’s daughter Jessie shows up, then she disappears.  The men look for her.  They go home.  This is bookended by two short scenes that take place at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been slowed down to last 24 hours.  And that’s it.

Taken at face value, its another of DeLillo’s exercises in minimalism (see also Falling Man and Cosmopolis, neither of which I enjoyed as much as his early works like White Noise and Libra), but as I mentioned earlier there’s a deep core of melancholy at Point Omega’s center, not just in the stark desert setting or Elster’s near-catatonia when Jessie disappears.  It suffuses everything, and to that end it’s a book that needs to be experienced more than explained.

“Oh ha ha, Rob,” you’re saying.  “Experienced more than explained.  What the hell does that mean?”  Well, if I can get even more pretentious for a second, the action in Point Omega isn’t in the action.  Hikes in the desert, Jessie’s arrival, the search after she’s gone – these are almost irrelevant.  The action is in the spaces between this movement, in passages of relative inaction, when we get dialogue like this, from Elster, reflecting on his approach toward the Iraq War:

‘Haiku means nothing beyond what it is.  A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind.  It’s human consciousness located in nature.  It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count.  I wanted a haiku war,’ he said. ‘I wanted a war in three lines.  This was not a matter of force levels or logistics.  What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.  This is the soul of haiku.  Bare everything to plain sight.  See what’s there.  Things in war are transient.  See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.’

Can I say with any authority what Point Omega is about?  Not really.  But as many problems as I have with latter-day DeLillo, there’s one thing about his most recent books that I like quite a bit: their sparseness makes them literary Rorschach tests, open to a range of interpretations.  Here’s how I made sense of it.  During one conversation, Elster describes the omega point as the time at which we “leap out of our biology” and into something else. With that in mind, Point Omega seems to be about the power of loss to jolt us out of one reality and into another.  Those times when we are most present, most alive, because we’ve had to watch the things we love fade away.

*****

Current listening:

Courtney sometimes

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

Don’t Let Me Bring You Down

Subtitle this one,Elmore gold “The Time One of My Favorite Authors Wrote a Book I Didn’t Like Very Much.”

It happens.  R.E.M. gives us Around the Sun, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs Death Proof,  Michael Fassbender appears in Jonah Hex.  Even our most reliable artists stumble from time to time – it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise – and with any luck, they recover. That’s largely how I feel about Gold Coast, a book that seems to have something on its mind but doesn’t execute very well.

The problem (and I’ll try to keep this short) is that in this book Leonard fails where he usually succeeds: his characters are, as the French would say, total merde.  The book revolves around a spectacularly uninteresting trio consisting of widow Karen, cowboy-hat-wearing villain Roland, and wannabe good guy Maguire.  And that’s unfortunate, because Gold Coast actually sports a killer premise. Karen’s ultra-possessive, mobbed-up husband Frank dies and leave her his estate in trust: a monthly payment of $20,000 which will eventually total $4 million.  The catch is that his possessiveness stays behind to haunt her.  If Karen dates anyone else – ever – she forfeits the money, and Frank facilitates the deal from beyond the grave by arranging for Roland to tap her phones and scare off any would-be suitors.  This is where Maguire, a petty thief who decided to go straight by working at a low-rent Sea World knock-off, enters the picture.  He falls for Karen – and she for him, sorta – and, after Karen learns of Frank’s scheme, the two of them cook up a plan by which they can get Roland out of the picture.

It’s good, right?  I mean, I don’t pretend to have enough legal savvy to know if Frank’s deal is plausible, but Leonard sells it.  After the first couple chapters I was prepared for a typically entertaining ride from the master of this sort of thing.  But, as I mentioned above, the three main characters are just … dull.  Where Leonard’s characters are usually sharply and incisively drawn, here we get broad strokes that are supposed to pass for personality.  Roland is a backwoods hick who wears a blue suit; Maguire is brash and idealistic; and Karen is, well, sort of a blank slate.  In her defense (and Leonard’s, by extension), we learn at the very end of Gold Coast that that’s very much by design.  But the problem is that the revelation in question (which I obviously won’t spoil here) doesn’t turn the book on its head like it should, so Karen just sort of remains a void.  It’s unclear, then, why these two men are fighting over her other than the fact that she’s a 44-year-old woman with the body of a 25-year-old.  On one hand that reveals some troubling gender politics; on the other hand, it’s not totally implausible that that would be enough for some men to drop everything and take up fisticuffs.

Without well-defined characters on which to hang his trademark dialogue, Leonard’s plot spins its wheels aimlessly.  Things gradually become more and more convoluted to the point where the book’s relatively scant 218 pages actually felt too long.  I usually breeze through Leonard’s stuff in a day or two; this one I struggled with.  As I’ve written in multiple reviews, I don’t need to relate to characters to enjoy a book, but I do need characters.  To crib shamelessly from Luigi PirandelloGold Coast is a story in search of three characters.

I know enough of Elmore Leonard’s career to know he recovers from this uncharacteristic lull (when Gold Coast was published, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch were still out of there on the horizon ten or more years in the future), but this is easily the first of his books I can’t enthusiastically recommend.

*****

Current listening:

Radiohead bends

Radiohead – The Bends (1995)

A Last Act of Desperate Men

Raymond trouble

It took me a few years living in Georgia to realize just how much California is in my bones.  I grew up a Midwesterner but then spent 14 crucial years – 1995-2009, or age 22 to 36 – on the West Coast.  I never made a conscious decision to self-identify as a Californian, but after living in the Atlanta area for a couple years I suddenly realized just how much my time in California had shaped my personality.  And now, even though I’ve been in the South for nearly six years, no author takes me back to Los Angeles like Raymond Chandler.  When he writes, “There was a desert wind blowing that night.  It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” I immediately think, I know that wind! Even though he’s writing about 1930’s L.A., I read his work and immediately return to late-night Santa Barbara streets, driving home after a show, the marine layer rolling in to slick my arm hanging out the open window and ghost a hazy nimbus around the amber streetlights.  The state still haunts me, but under Chandler’s influence it’s not an unwelcome possession.

Although I feel pretty firmly that Elmore Leonard is the undisputed master of crime fiction and, more narrowly, James Ellroy has cornered the market on a certain adrenalized, bare-knuckle strain of Los Angeles noir, it’s impossible not to see Chandler as the Rosetta Stone of the modern detective story, with Leonard and Ellroy and Rankin and Lehane and Hiaasen all tracing their lineage back to Chandler’s pitch-black tales of Philip Marlowe and the street-smart broads with whom he associates.

It’s been a long time since I last read Chandler – probably fifteen years or more since I closed The Long Goodbye – and the first paragraph of the title story in Trouble Is My Business is just like sinking into a warm bath.

Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit.  Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color.  She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella.  She said: ‘I need a man.’

For my money there’s nothing not to like about that passage, and the rest of the four stories in this collection are just as razor-sharp.  If I’m going to be honest, though, the actual plot mechanics are almost beside the point.  Chandler admits as much in a forward to the collection, where he says there’s no such thing as a classic mystery story because the only thing that really matters is the denouement, where everything is revealed, and everything that comes before is just process to get to the conclusion.  So to that end  – and I’ll come back to the kinda sorta problematic denouement theory in a sec – the stories in this collection are composed of more or less interchangeable parts:

  • Private eye Philip Marlowe as the world-weary narrator
  • A con involving money (two stories) or pearls (two stories)
  • A brassy dame with a gun
  • A scene where Marlowe gets hit in the back of the head with a sap
  • Two wise-cracking bad guys, one of whom might be garrulous and charismatic, the other taciturn and sullen, and only one of them will be a good shot
  • The mastermind of the con who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is
  • A Los Angeles cop who reluctantly lets Marlowe go about his business
  • One or more scenes involving scotch or rye, which may or may not be set in a bar
  • Rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue where Marlowe says things like, “Some days I feel like playing smooth and some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron.”

None of this is criticism, mind you.  The reason Chandler is so good is that he mixes and matches all these pieces and manages to put them together in novel and exciting ways each time.  In one story it’s about a guy who cheats a local mob boss out of $20,000; in another, Marlowe tracks some missing pearls to the Pacific Northwest.  Even though we recognize the parts, the thrill is in seeing how Chandler repurposes them from story to story.  Everything in this collection crackles with electricity.

Everything, that is, except for the denouement Chandler references, the part of the story he views as most vital to its success.  This is the only thing in Trouble Is My Business that feels antiquated: the scene where all the principal players are gathered in one room and Marlowe explains the nuts and bolts of everything that’s come before.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called The Fallacy of the Talking Killer.  You know that tired scene from movies – where the bad guy has the good guy trapped and all he has to do is kill him but he spends five minutes explaining why he’s so bad and then the good guy escapes.  It’s kind of the same thing here, where Marlowe has to explain the contortions of the plot so we’ll see everything the way he sees it.  It’s a scene that I don’t really see in modern crime fiction, and in these stories it’s always necessary (Chandler is big on convoluted plots), but it also grinds the story to a halt.

But again, I don’t really mean this as criticism.  It’s an early hallmark of the genre Chandler essentially invented (yes yes, I know – Poe, Doyle, Christie, etc., etc. I’m talking contemporary crime fiction here), and by pointing it out I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading what is an unequivocally delightful collection of stories.  It’s one of those rare occasions where I don’t mind substance taking a back seat to style.  Chandler’s not going to make me ponder the meaning of the universe, but he will dazzle me with sheer inventiveness of craft.  And of course take me back to California, where gravel roads disappear “around a shoulder of scrub oak and manzanita” and “plumes of pampas grass flare on the side of the hill, like jets of water.”

I wasn’t born in California, but reading Chandler is like going home.

*****

Current listening:

Red ocean

Red House Painters – Ocean Beach (1995)

You Know You Can’t Go Back

Banks lostRussell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a very, very good book that’s very, very hard to like.  Actually, I take that back.  It’s easy to like if you’re a reader who accepts that protagonists can be flawed, possibly beyond redemption.  If you’re a fan of Banks, you know to expect this.  This is, after all, the same guy who’s made a career of trafficking in problematic characters – from militant abolitionist John Brown (Cloudsplitter) to an opportunistic lawyer and incestuous father (The Sweet Hereafter) to a perpetually angry drunk (Affliction).  So when it becomes clear that the main character in Lost Memory of Skin is a convicted sex offender, your attitude will largely depend on how familiar you are with Banks’ work.  And even if you’re very familiar, like I am, it’s still going to be one of the most uncomfortable reading experiences you’re likely to have.

The Kid is the book’s anchor, the sex offender we meet in the opening chapter, newly released from prison and nervously going to the public library (a forbidden location) to access the Internet (a forbidden activity) to verify for himself his presence on the National Sex Offender Registry.  He’s scared away when his photo pops up on the screen and the librarian recognizes him, and he flees to the Causeway, an area beneath an overpass where local sex offenders have pitched tents and built shanties because it’s one of only three places in the county where they won’t be within 2,500 feet of children.  One afternoon he meets the Professor, a morbidly obese academic from the local university who wants to interview the Kid for a research project.  It’s the Professor’s hypothesis that sex offenders have only been led to offend because they don’t feel in control of any other aspect of their lives, and they can therefore be redeemed by having some measure of control and success – jobs and responsibilities – that give them the confidence they need to no longer assert their control by preying on the young.  Lost Memory of Skin is primarily about the relationship that develops between the Kid and the Professor – friends would be overstating things – and how what begins as a simple interview project develops into a weirdly symbiotic partnership.

The question throughout the book – the problem that the whole thing hinges on – is if the Kid is beyond redemption.  Banks wisely withholds the nature of his crime for a while, but I can’t do that here and still talk about what I think is a central theme of the book.  So …

HERE BE SPOILERS

Banks makes the Kid more a pitiable character than a reprehensible one, but rather than making things easy on himself this opens up a moral gray area that’s far more satisfying than if the Kid were an obvious bad guy.  He’s painted as a neglected child, cared for by a single mother more concerned with finding a man than taking care of her only child.  The Kid has no friends and no girlfriend, and almost by accident he stumbles across online pornography.  He quickly becomes obsessed, probably addicted, and rather than attempt to forge meaningful relationships with his peers, simply drifts around in a fog of online videos and masturbation.  He enlists in the Army but finds himself just as friendless there.  In a misguided attempt to force camaraderie on the rest of his platoon, the Kid buys a bunch of pornographic DVDs to hand out, but is busted during inspection and discharged.  Back in his mother’s home, he returns to the Internet, and that’s where things get tricky.

The Kid strikes up an online correspondence with a teenage girl.  She initially claims to be 18, then admits she’s 14.  This begins as an innocent conversation about the Kid’s pet iguana, Iggy, but it slowly escalates over a period of weeks and ultimately becomes more explicit.  Eventually the Kid schedules a rendezvous at her home, shows up with a backpack full of beer, porn, and condoms, and is busted by the police in what is clearly a sting to catch sexual predators.

And here’s where Banks has been very canny with what I think is meant to be criticism of these kinds of operations, as well as sex offender laws in general.  The escalation to explicitness that I mentioned earlier is initiated and facilitated entirely by the girl, with the Kid playing along only when the girl prompts him.  It’s never made clear if there ever was a girl or if the online conversations were with the police all along, so if you’re reading it the way I’m reading it, there’s an argument to be made that the Kid is the real victim in this situation, manipulated into a potential crime by police who preyed on a lonely, depressed individual.  Of course the Kid should have never gone to her house (again, assuming there’s a her at all), should have known the difference between right and wrong, should have steered clear altogether.  Of course it’s disgusting behavior.  But I keep being drawn back to the issue of manipulation.  If it was a police operation all along, and the Kid was only going to “her” house because he had been goaded into it by law enforcement, is the Kid really guilty of anything?  He certainly never commits a sexual act.  As the conversation plays out, he never even propositions the girl.  He’s guilty of being a skeezy dude who shows up at a teenage girl’s house with beer and porn, and that’s about it.  Gross, yes, but is it worthy of the penalty, which is six months in jail, ten years with a GPS bracelet on his ankle, and a lifetime of stigmatization on the Sex Offender Registry?

I don’t know.  Even as I typed some of those sentences it felt indefensible.  He went.  He had designs.  Surely that counts for something.  And I think that’s where the Kid is sort of an ingenious creation.  He doesn’t give the reader an easy way out, and he also allows us to ask tough questions about some of our country’s legal practices.

FOR THE SPOILER-AVERSE, IT IS NOW SAFE TO READ AGAIN

Also on Banks’ radar are the restrictions placed on the sex offenders in Calusa County (Banks never says Florida by name, but he’s not kidding anyone).  They can’t be within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries – anywhere there’s likely to be children.  That leaves them with their shantytown under the Causeway, the international terminal at the airport, and the Penzacola Swamp (a stand-in for the Everglades).  This restriction lasts for ten years.  Do you see the problem with this situation?  How easy is it to get a job when your address is the swamp?  How likely are you to gain meaningful employment when you’re living in a tent under the highway?  In this situation the sex offenders are released straight from prison and into ten years of homelessness, which, let’s face it, after ten years will likely exist into perpetuity.  I’m all for making sure offenders pay their debt to society – and in many cases they deserve all they get and more, especially when small children are the victims – but the book makes us ask if this lifetime penalty is appropriate for lesser offenders.  Does the Kid deserve his life sentence, based solely on the circumstances?  Is he beyond redemption?  Banks gives us a definitive answer at the end, but the beauty of this ugly book is that it leaves room for dissent.

There’s more – much, much more – to say.  It’s not an easy read.  The Kid is not an easy character to like, nor is the Professor (whom I haven’t really discussed at all, but about whom I could easily write another thousand words).  But if you want to read something that will make you ask important questions about our society, the importance of community, and the possibility of redemption, Lost Memory of Skin is worth the discomfort.

*****

Current listening:

Idlewild remote

Idlewild – The Remote Part (2002)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

The Dying of the Light

Rankin hangingI never saw it coming, but somehow mystery became my genre of choice.  I read very little horror or fantasy anymore and, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve only dabbled minimally in science-fiction.  I’ve never read a western I liked – unless we’re going to count Cormac McCarthy as a writer of westerns, in which case, okay, I like him – and I suppose most of my reading fits into that very nebulous non-genre of literary fiction.  You know: T.C. Boyle, Russell Banks, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, and so on.  But starting in the late 90s with John Sandford’s Prey series and James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, I slowly started to gravitate to more and more mystery fiction.  This was cemented when my wife hooked me on Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffrey novels (starting with the masterful Birdman, a book you should read immediately) and, more recently still, when I picked up Knots and Crosses, the first of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books.  Now, even though I’m still fairly picky (no John Patterson or Sue Grafton, thankyouverymuch), rumor of newish high-quality mysteries will make my ears perk up.

Even though I enjoy reading them, I don’t think I have the mental dexterity to write one of my own.  The trick, which Ian Rankin so ably demonstrates in The Hanging Garden (his ninth Inspector Rebus title, with ten to go), is to set as many disparate pieces on the field as possible and then make them collide in satisfying ways.  In The Hanging Garden, Rankin somehow manages to bring together an Eastern European prostitution ring, a reputed Nazi war criminal, the Yakuza, the Rat Line (a rumored post-WWII pipeline by which the Vatican and the Allies smuggled high-ranking Nazi figures to the West), and drug smuggling in a way that’s sort of breathtaking in its intricacy.  It never seems forced, and, most importantly, even though we see the pieces and know they’re going to come together eventually, Rankin makes it seem both logical and inevitable instead of manipulative.

The thing that continues to set Rankin’s series apart from the rest of the pack, though, is its main character.  Unlike a lot of detective fiction, Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t an action hero.  He’s a rumpled, cynical, recovering alcoholic who’s obsessive about his job and music from the 60s, in that order.  He’s got a deadpan sense of humor and he isn’t especially likable, but his tenacity makes him a formidable opponent (he likens himself in one book to a terrier who doesn’t know when to let go of the bone).  And even though he constantly treads the line between right and wrong in the course of solving a case, he doesn’t fall into the tired stereotype of the brash cop who proudly breaks all the rules.  Rebus just does what he does and doesn’t make much of an attempt to rationalize it.  He isn’t wracked with guilt, but he doesn’t flaunt his rule-breaking.  He is, at heart, a pragmatist.

In The Hanging Garden, one way this pragmatism manifests itself is through Rebus’ relationship with Gerald Cafferty, an Edinburgh-based mob boss he was responsible for capturing and imprisoning several books ago.  When Rebus’ daughter is hospitalized in a hit-and-run that appears to be a warning sign to Rebus as part of an escalating mob turf war, the detective turns to Cafferty to find out who was responsible for his daughter’s injuries.  In my experience, every good mystery has one or two moments that make your heart race.  The prison exchange between Rebus and Cafferty is one of those moments.

‘My daughter got hurt.  Funny that, so soon after we’d had our little chat.’

‘Hurt how?’

‘Hit and run.’

Cafferty was thoughtful. ‘I don’t pick on civilians.’

‘Convince me,’ Rebus said.

‘Why should I bother?’

‘The conversation we had … What you asked me to do.’

‘There’s something you’ve forgotten.  I lost a son, remember.  Think I could do that to another father?  I’d do a lot of things, Rebus, but not that, never that.’

Rebus held the stare. ‘All right,’ he said.

‘You want me to find out who did it?’

Rebus nodded slowly.

‘That’s your price?’

‘I want them delivered to me.  I want you to do that, whatever it takes.

‘And meantime, you’re my man?’

Rebus stared at him. ‘I’m your man,’ he said.

Some of my excitement at this passage comes from the men’s accumulated history, at knowing exactly just how much water has passed beneath that particular bridge.  But it’s also the scene’s economy and brevity, how so much is said with so little, and what exists between the lines.  In Rebus’ world, there’s often a gray area between good and bad, where cops break the rules and the gangsters operate under a strict moral code.

The problem of reviewing a mystery is saying enough to entice without spoiling the fun.  And make no mistake: Rankin’s books are immeasurably fun.  The cast of supporting characters is rich and deep, the stakes are high, and the book’s moral center is delightfully ambiguous.  In my previous review of one of his books I said Ian Rankin was the best mystery writer currently working.  The Hanging Garden will be tough to top.

Side note:

Music fans will likely recognize the book’s title (and the lyrics scattered throughout) as belonging to a song of the same name by The Cure.  The title doesn’t have much to do with the story, except that in keeping with the prevailing mood of early-80s Cure, The Hanging Garden is easily Rankin’s bleakest book to date.

*****

Current listening:

Echodrone five

Echodrone – Five (2015)